Revisiting Clueless: Cher’s Place in the American Film Canon
Jane Austen knew a thing or two about romance. Or at least she knew a thing or two about what people want romance to look like. How else could Pride and Prejudice have endured in the western cultural imagination for more than 200 years? If Austen hadn’t tapped into some fundamental desire to see complex human relationships play out in a middle class romance for the ages, then my mother would never have gotten to see Colin Firth dive into the lake; you know the scene and if you don’t, it’s the second result when you Google search “colin firth pride and prejudice.” Get to it. We would be missing out on so much culture! The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, one of many Pride and Prejudice remakes, started my favorite web-video genre: the literary vlog adaptation. In addition, Austen’s works, second only to Shakespeare, have been adapted into all sorts of teen comedies — the best of which is Clueless. We owe so much to Jane Austen! Long may she reign.
In the interest of full disclosure, the only Jane Austen novel I’ve actually read cover to cover is Emma because I read it in my mother-daughter book club circa 2010 and also because my name is Emma. Austen’s Emma is a classic tale of matchmaking: things go right and then a little bit off-the-rails and then, as all 19th century romances must, it ends with a wedding. Emma has been rewritten, adapted for stage, film, and television, and has generally cemented itself in the western literary canon, but the best adaptation of the beloved classic will always be Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, the perfect film to return to for Valentine’s Day.
The opening montage of decadent Beverly Hills teenage life follows the iconic, blocky neon title imagery all over The Muffs’ “Kids in America,” establishing the light comic tone of the film effortlessly. As we see Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone) zoom around in her Jeep and use her computer to pick out her outfit for the day, she narrates in voiceover, “But seriously, I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl.” Sure, Cher. Remarkably the Valley Girl-talking daughter of a successful Los Angeles lawyer makes for an unexpected, but phenomenal, modern spin on the Regency era issues that Jane Austen first concerned herself with.
Where Emma Woodhouse is a bored young society woman, Cher Horowitz is a high-schooler with the confidence — that only the wealthy have — to argue any grade from a C+ up to an A- (a trait clearly encouraged by her father (Dan Hedaya), who tells her, “Honey, I couldn’t be happier than if they were based on real grades”). Like Emma, Cher finds accidental success setting up two lonely souls, but that happy outcome over-inflates her own sense of self-importance and she starts to meddle in affairs that would have been better left alone. Just like in Austen’s novel, events then quickly and comedically spiral out of her control.
One of the key guiding questions when watching Clueless in the 21st century is this: is it too weird that (SPOILER ALERT) Cher ends up with Josh (Paul Rudd), her former step-brother?
This question was still at the forefront of my brain when I rewatched the movie last March, having not seen it in a number of years. A good friend had never seen it and so I forced her to watch it with me. After thorough scrutiny and lengthy discussion, I have come to the conclusion that everything is fine here. Amy Heckerling had quite the job in updating relationships from 1815 to 1995, so making George Knightley, the dear family friend of the Woodhouses, into Josh Lucas, the (very briefly) former step-brother of Cher makes sense. Without knowing much about the nuances of upper-middle class 19th century British relationships, the update seems reasonable. And the film goes out of its way to de-emphasize the sibling relationship between Cher and Josh, considering that when Josh is first mentioned in the film by Cher’s father, Cher responds with, “But you were hardly even married to his mother and that was five years ago.” They’re much more family friends than family! We can all go home happily.
Despite my investigation into Cher and Josh as a couple, the romance in Clueless is almost incidental to the narrative. It’s more a comedic bildungsroman with a dash of romance than an out-and-out romantic-comedy. The strength of Clueless, besides its incredible evocation of 1990s Beverly Hills, is its emphasis on the friendships and family relationships that make life worth living. Cher and Josh are friends long before they’re anything else. Cher makes clear that she’ll be ready for love when it comes her way, but notes, when questioned on her virginity, “You see how picky I am about my shoes, and they only go on my feet!” She takes her friendships with Dionne (Stacey Dash) and Tai (Brittany Murphy) much more seriously than any romantic prospects. Additionally, most of her romantic drive, much like in the original Emma, is vested in pairing up the people around her (with mixed results). Cher only finds romantic fulfillment after she exhibits some serious coming-of-age realizations about her behavior and values and takes earnest steps towards being a better person. Although Cher almost always means well (“May I remind you that it doesn’t say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty?”), it takes growing up a little bit for her to think about the consequences of her actions in a more concrete way. As Cher grows up, she reassess what matters to her and, in that period of self-reflection, realizes that she is totally butt-crazy in love with Josh! But the self-transformation comes first.
Proclaiming my love for Clueless gets me eye-rolls from “serious” film fans (read: guys who love Fight Club too much), but the difficulty of creating a smart, funny, and lasting comedy about young people should not be understated. The comedic sensibility of Clueless is impeccable and the film satirizes Valley Girl culture intelligently and without malice when it easily could have taken the low-hanging fruit of mocking teenage girls without respecting them as people. Ugh, as if! Clueless belongs in the canon of great 20th century filmmaking, full stop. Scoffing at this film equals scoffing at comedy as a genre, specifically female-centered comedy of which there is still far too little in 2018. Clueless shows that a world full of funny, heartfelt, female-directed comedy is possible.